Tatting is a handmade knotted lace formed with thread, usually No. 20 or finer, and a small shuttle of 3" or less in length.
The shuttle works as a thread-holder and, as with a weaving shuttle, it moves between the threads on the loom of the hand - but that is the only similarity with weaving. Many shuttles have an embedded hook which is used for joining elements together, and if the shuttle has no hook, a separate crochet hook is used.
If you are looking at a pile of lace in a fleamarket, tatting will stand out from the rest, because it is composed entirely of small rings, or rings and arched chains. These rings and chains are usually embellished with picots - tiny loops of thread between stitches. Some picots are purely decorative, but others are used for the vital function of joining elements together.
Amazingly only one simple knot is used throughout, the Lark's Head, consisting of 2 half-hitches. Although it is a knot, in tatting language it is called a double stitch (abbreviated by DS), and consists of a first half and a second half stitch. The magic of the DS is that it slides on the running line carrying it so that the stitches can be drawn up close together. To complete a ring, you pull up all of the surplus running thread until only a neat tatted ring is left.
◀ The two half-hitches that form the tatting double stitch (ds). The circle of the running thread runs through them. DK Cotton is used here.
◀ The half-hitches pulled tight to form the ds, and two more ds added. Note: a small ball of yarn is used here, but when actually tatting the thread is wound onto a shuttle.
◀ 6ds, a picot, and 6ds made, and all of the surplus thread pulled through them to disappear leaving a tatted ring.
Historically speaking, tatting emerged in the first half of the 19th century as a development from knotting. The new availability of fine mercerized threads from 1835 encouraged a burgeoning of lacecrafts of all sorts. In the 19th century and well into the 20th century, tatting was used like crochet or knitted lace mainly for edgings, collars, doyleys, traycloths and so on. The threads used ranged from No. 20 to the very fine No. 100. And the colour was usually white or ecru.
But since the formation of the Ring of Tatters in 1980, and even more since the coming of the Internet, ideas and new techniques have spread around the world like wildfire. More people than ever are creating their own patterns, and publishing them too. They can start by sending in patterns to our Ring of Tatters Newsletter or to a website such as this one. Then some go on to publish whole books of patterns.
These days tatters are ready to have a go at tatting with anything from ribbon to a fishing line to wire. Irene Waller paved the way ("Tatting", 1974) with sandals tatted in thick polyester yarn, and Rhoda Auld ("Tatting" 1974) with a tatted clothes-line.
However, most tatters prefer more traditional cotton thread which tats well and produces good results. But we do appreciate the huge range of colours now available. As well as the traditional items, most of us like to tat all sorts of other things: cards for special anniversaries, pictures, seasonal decorations, jewellery and crazy things like the 3D Tattysaurus!
If you want to learn more about the history of tatting and knotting, we have some material in the Tatting Heritage section, or there is an excellent small book with lots of fascinating illustrations: "Tatting" by Pam Palmer, published by Shire Publications Ltd.